Governor Clinton's tough-it-out strategy On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

January 28, 1992|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Portsmouth, N.H. -- ABOUT three hours after Bill and Hillary Clinton had finished taping their much-awaited interview for Sunday night's special "60 Minutes" show, the beleaguered Arkansas governor was fielding questions from a friendly crowd at a campaign rally here.

After several softball questions on issues, a woman in the audience posed the critical one -- about the allegations of an affair with the Little Rock woman who leveled them at him for pay from a gossip tabloid.

Boos ushered from the crowd, together with shouts of "Nobody cares!" Mr. Clinton replied: "Well, she does." And then he added curtly: "Watch '60 Minutes.' I've said all I'm going to say and I'm not going to say anymore. That's it.' "

The crowd cheered, and Mr. Clinton promptly fielded another question on another subject. With that comment, Mr. Clinton provided in a nutshell his strategy for trying to put the reports and rumors of marital fidelity behind him once and for all.

Whether it will work, permitting him to keep his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination on track and focused on the issues of his choice, is likely to depend on two factors. The first and obvious one is whether voters are willing to believe Mr. Clinton and look past the charges against him. The second is whether these charges are the end of the matter, or whether new allegations are raised, or Mr. Clinton is found to have been untruthful about the first ones.

Mr. Clinton's statements in the "60 Minutes" interview shown several hours after the Portsmouth rally dealt with the specific charge that he had a 12-year affair with the woman, Gennifer Flowers. "That allegation is false," Mr. Clinton said.

As for other instances of past in fidelity, Mr. Clinton for all practical purposes admitted that there had been. "I have acknowledged wrongdoing, I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage," he said at one point. But he also observed: "I'm not prepared to say tonight that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves."

Mr. Clinton did, however, admit that his statement was not a denial of the general question of infidelity, and in fact added: "The only way to put it behind us is for all of us to agree this guy has told us about all we need to know. Anybody who's listening gets the drift of it . . ."

In taking this tack, Mr. Clinton clearly is counting not only on public willingness to move on but on the willingness of the news media as well. The fact that the Flowers story was broken in ""TC gossip tabloid held in minimal repute even within the news business gives Mr. Clinton more than the customary rationale of politicians to criticize the press and in so doing seek sympathy from voters who don't hold the news media in the highest regard either.

One reason Mr. Clinton gave for declining to discuss the infidelity matter further was his suggestion that money made Flowers do it, and could similarly entice others in these hard economic times.

"It was only when money came out, when the tabloid went down there offering people money to say that they had been involved with me," he said on the show, "that she changed her story. There's a recession on. Times are tough and I think you can expect more and more of these stories as long as they're down there handing out money."

Asked at the close of the interview whether his "gamble" of going on television had succeeded in putting his campaign back on track, Mr. Clinton replied: "That's up to the American people and to some extent up to the press. This will test the character of the press. It's not only my character that has been tested."

That observation is not likely to deter some elements of the news media, particularly those that thrive on sensationalism, from continuing to play what Mr. Clinton disparagingly called "gotcha." But in general the mainstream news outlets, print and airwaves, handled the original allegations gingerly and so far have treated Mr. Clinton's televised response, which he volunteered to do and thus invited press reporting and comment, for the most part with considerable restraint.

The Clintons' remarks were artful, in what was and wasn't admitted and in seeking to put the news media on public trial as well as themselves. Now the public jury will consider the case, and Mr. Clinton obviously hopes that the mainstream press and television will back off somewhat to demonstrate the "character" to which Mr. Clinton challengly referred.

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